Special Instructions for Patients Receiving Radiation Therapy to the Head & Neck Area

For patients with cancer involving the head and neck area (but not patients with brain tumors) or other cancers where treatment to the head and neck is required (e.g., Hodgkin’s disease), special care and attention are necessary.

Radiation therapy given to your mouth area may reduce saliva, which is responsible for the natural cleansing of your teeth. Consequently, you may have a reduced ability to resist tooth decay. The responsibility and the means to prevent oral and dental difficulties lie with you. Good oral hygiene habits and regular dental visits are the best means to preventing dental problems down the road.


To minimize the effects on your teeth and help prevent tooth decay, follow these guidelines:

  1. 1. Visit your dentist prior to or soon after the beginning of radiation therapy, and regularly at least every six months. Be sure to tell your dentist that you are receiving radiation therapy so he or she can take appropriate action.

  2. 2. Brush your teeth regularly, three to four times a day. Use a soft toothbrush to avoid trauma to the gums, and use fluoride-containing toothpaste.

  3. 3. Use dental floss daily.

  4. 4. Because salivation is decreased, frequent rinsing or gargling will help to keep the mouth moist and clean. You may use plain water, one teaspoon of baking soda in warm water (preferred), or one part hydrogen peroxide to six parts warm water. Do not use a commercial mouthwash, as it has alcohol and other chemicals that can irritate your mouth.

  5. 5. Rinse daily with fluoride obtained from your dentist.

  6. 6. Avoid foods that stick in your mouth.

  7. 7. Use sugarless gum, mints, lemon drops, or the like as desired.


Once again, pay attention to nutrition and use liquid supplements such as Ensure Plus, Sustacal, Carnation Instant Breakfasts, etc., if you are unable to eat solid foods.


Treatment to your mouth area also may cause other side effects, such as a dry mouth, sore throat, loss of taste, and loss of appetite. There has been recent progress in trying to lessen the long-term mouth dryness using a special radioprotector called Amifostine prior to each radiation treatment. Ask your Radiation Oncologist if you are a candidate to receive such additional preventative therapy.